The hunt started as many Maine northwoods deer hunts often do—a long drive, a light rain falling on the roof of the camp which turns to snow overnight. By the time I awoke, there were two inches of heavy wet stuff coating everything. I set off very early, knowing I had many miles to drive before reaching the place I wanted to hunt. I’d been working as a forester in the area near the Canadian border the year before and had seen some really large tracks on the shoulders of the shale woods roads. Miles ticked off and I didn’t see any good tracks crossing the road until I turned down my final road. There, just as I had hoped, was a huge buck track in the fresh snow. That was 11 years ago. I never did shoot that buck, but he gave me a heck of a chase and left an indelible memory that I’ve not been able to shake since. I have tracked down some good bucks over the years and had some great adventures, but…
It seems my hunts have always been in search of another four-fingered buck track, the type of animal with hooves so big that a grown man can fit his palm down in the width of it. After hunting other locations, last fall I finally found myself able to return to the place where the big one gave me the slip. My hunting partner, Chris Griggs, and I both had a week off of work. Plans were made, and the truck was packed. After a full day of travel on very snowy roads, we made it to camp in the northern Maine woods area west of the Saint John River.
Early the next morning, we set out on three-day old snow in search of tracks crossing the roads. We had to cut our way in with a chainsaw in some spots, as most of the roads had not seen any recent vehicle traffic. We drove miles and miles and saw no deer tracks. Cresting a hill, in a place not more than one mile from where my last hunt up there took place, we spotted a good track. We knew it was old, but it was large, and we were eager. Not having much else to go on, Chris and I set off.
At first, it led us down off a hardwood ridge into the edge of a big swamp, showing us his stomping grounds. Shortly, however, his track mixed in with a mess of other deer tracks—some old, some smoking fresh. It quickly became apparent that he had been out checking groups of does, traveling in a very straight line between the seemingly chaotic interactions with deer. We saw a few deer and jumped up some others. Most of the deer were feeding in the cedar tops and old man’s beard clinging to the fir tops that were strewn across the ground courtesy of the recent wind storm.
The second day brought with it a forecast of snow, and boy did it snow. Between dawn and noon, it snowed very heavy. Not able to find any sign, we split up and hiked the woods, hoping to cut a fresh track. Chris ended up on a decent buck and had trouble keeping the track fresh given how hard it was snowing. When it finally eased around noon, we regrouped. As we hiked out a rough spur road back to the truck, we came across a very large but old track going up the road. Even though the track was filled in with snow we could tell it was made by one large buck. Shortly thereafter, we spotted some very fresh tracks crossing the road just a little way beyond, and although the big buck was not with them, we decided to follow it anyway. After two hours of slogging through doghair cedar and fir, crossing a wet bog stream four times, we gave up, convinced that they were not going to lead us to anything worth following. We climbed in the truck and drove all the roads late that afternoon to verify if the big buck had crossed. We spotted no tracks other than those made by us and the group of small deer. The snow had stopped, and we were tired.
The third day of our hunt started early. By 2:45 Chris had made coffee and lunch and I made a breakfast of eggs, sausage and toast. We hit the roads before dawn and drove the nearly two hours to our spot. Playing out much like Monday’s hunt, we found a big buck track crossing the road at the top of the hill. He crossed in the exact same spot and was travelling in the same direction. We surmised that he was up to the same old activity of checking on groups of does. It was daylight now and we decided I would take up the track—Chris would circle around to the west, where we had ended up in a mess of deer on Monday. I parked the truck at the height of land, loaded the gun and set off.
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The track was very easy to follow in the fresh powder snow. The buck was all alone and travelling fast through hardwoods and skid trails. With the temperature around 10 degrees, the north wind bit extra hard. I crossed the open cuttings and followed slowly as the buck cut around to the south heading across an old chopping. Still not sure how far ahead of me he was, I proceeded cautiously. At that point he hit an old winter road and bee-lined it down a skid trail leading to a cedar swamp. The walking was surprisingly easy. He picked out the best path possible and clearly had some destination in mind. He then led me to a small spruce bluff, and into a mess of tracks. Clearly evident in the fresh snow was a buck track leading up a small hill. Also, very clear was a buck track running downhill, as was yet another buck track running back uphill. So, either I had three bucks right there or a single buck that was just feeling frisky and kicking up his heels. I tried my best to sort it out, but ended up doing a half-hour detour on the oldest of his tracks, only to find myself back where it all started. I continued on the track which led me out to some more spruce knobs and old beaver ponds. I radioed to Chris when crossing one opening to let him know I was headed the “wrong” way but would surely come out somewhere, on some road, by the end of the day. I heard crackling static back, but I knew the backup plan was he would start driving the roads at the end of the day to pick me up.
After crossing a wide but inactive beaver pond and stream, the buck led me to yet another spruce knoll. This one was mixed in with some nice poplar and birch trees. Although he moved at a good clip, the buck laid down several small scrapes along the way. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d ever catch up to him. A cold powdery snow doesn’t reveal too many clues as to a track’s age, but I knew that it couldn’t be more than a few hours old. And just like that, although I never heard or saw him, I saw his running track—I spooked him. As I followed it along, I could see that he ran a complete circle and stepped in my own boot prints made not more than an hour previously. Finally, some solid undisputable proof to the age of the track. I clearly am not far behind.
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I end up spooking the buck again without seeing him and he takes off in great leaps. This time he brings me through a thick cedar swamp with plenty of young growth. He is walking at this point, and I am just about on my hands and knees to get through. I try to move quietly, but based on the number of broken twigs and branches he left in his wake, I feel he didn’t have the same concern.
Thinking he might be there, looking back, waiting for me to crash through I moved slowly. Sorting it out once again, I ended up on a big fresh track leading away from the swamps. After less than an hour he leads me into more blowdowns and more fresh deer tracks. It is clear several deer have been feeding here today. A yearling materializes in front of me. I look around for as long a time as I have patience for, hoping to spot the big buck. After a few minutes my patience wears, and I sneak around the yearling in the quiet powder snow, not disturbing her from feeding. The buck track from this point is easy to follow. While the snow is deep and cold, the size of the holes he is making, combined with the width and stride of his steps makes following simple. None of the other deer are leaving holes in the snow like his.
Finally circling back around, he leads me down toward the river where I cut off the chase on Monday. As he nears the river, his track begins to wander. Although I never noticed him feeding, the track cuts back on itself a few times as he zigs and zags a little through a black spruce stand. The snow was knee deep and very quiet with soft ground underneath, so I kept my pace up. As I cut through the spruce, I catch a glimpse of an antler sticking up. My initial reaction being that I have just walked up on yet another bedded moose. Both Chris and I had seen multiple moose per day up here, and they are always mixed in with deer. I pull my gun up and realize that I am seeing just the top of the deer’s rack, the main beam and three points. He is laying about 30 yards away. I can tell which direction he is facing by the rack, and I consider trying to guess the location of his body through the spruce. How foolish would it be to shoot at something I can’t clearly see?
I decide the best tactic is to move a bit closer. The deer still didn’t know I was here, so I take a couple slow, quiet steps out around to the side, keeping the rifle up on my shoulder. A few steps out and around closer to the bedded buck presents me with a clear neck shot which I take, killing the buck. My watch reads 11:15 a.m..
I quickly turned on my GPS unit and am pleased to learn that after tracking across hills, ponds, and swamps all morning, I ended up only one-mile straight line distance from the road. After taking some pictures and dressing the deer out, I try pulling him a short way. Within 20 feet I decide the best approach is to leave the buck and get help. I covered the deer with what spare stinky undergarments I could afford in order to ward off any coyotes during my absence, and head back toward the road in hope of finding a good way out, and Chris to help drag. I never found Chris and he never found me. Since I had left a good portion of my clothing tied to the buck back in the woods, and the wind chill seemed worse than ever, I decided to make a break for the truck which was parked a mile further up the road. Surely, I figured I could run up, grab the truck, and come back to first locate Chris and then drag the buck out. A very brisk walk up the now familiar road led me the truck. The problems started when I went to put the truck in drive. Apparently, all the deep snow over on top of warm mud puddles combined with the single-degree air temps had resulted in a front rim sticking itself to the brake. I had three wheels spinning and one lamely skidding along, pushing up a ridge of snow and mud. I knew that was not good enough for the 35 or so miles back to camp. I was able to maneuver the truck out to a sunny flat spot and proceeded to shovel and chisel a way for the jack to get underneath the ice/mud encrusted truck frame. I ended up taking the wheel off and smashing a bunch of ice and mud out from the inside of the rim using the tire iron as a chisel. After reinstalling it all, I was able to get freed up and turned around to drive back down the road and find Chris and eventually, my buck.
Shortly after making it to the end of the road in my icicle truck, Chris showed up. We discussed the options and after a brief heater session, some half-frozen water, and a couple devil dogs, we put on dry gloves, grab some flashlights, and head back to the woods. I had paid close attention while walking out of the woods and we did the same going back in to the buck, figuring out the best way around the many obstacles. We reached the deer around 3pm, cut a drag stick, attached the rope and started dragging. At first, we both tried pulling together but found the thick woods and uneven ground had us fighting each other more than pulling the deer. In more open woods, dragging together works well, but here we found the best strategy was to pull the deer alone for a short distance, then hand the stick off and get a short rest while the other person pulled.
From there on out the drag was methodical as we took turns and worked over or around each successive blowdown. Some we went around, some we went over, some we went under. We finally hit an old winter road about one-quarter mile from the truck. As we got out in the open of that road, the wind subsided. The moon was up and the stars where super bright on the fresh snow. We pulled along and remarked how grateful we were, to be pulling a big buck out on the snow under the majestic light of the moon. Loading him in the truck was the final fiasco, but with the help of a come-along and Chris’s never-ending determination, we succeeded. We made it back to camp around 9 p.m. Sleep came easily. We were grateful for the experience we had that day, for having come so far and worked so hard to bag such a great animal in such a wild location.
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The next morning up we went down the road to the logging company office—the lady there did all the official reporting station paperwork. The woman who owns the camp we were staying in lived right around the corner, so we took the deer over there for a visit. She had a digital hanging scale and we hung the buck up. The weight jumped up and down a bit, most likely due to the drastic change in temperature from inside her warm basement to out in the cold air, but gave us readings anywhere from 295-308 lbs. We left camp that Sunday and headed back home. Coming out through Ashland and heading to I-95, the nearest official check station that was open was Lennie’s Superette in Medway. A gentleman came out and weighed the fully dressed buck on the official scales, coming in at 300 pounds even, four days after killing him. The buck turned out to be the largest entered into the Biggest Bucks in Maine Club for 2018.